Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Ways and Means

I made a discovery a few years ago that has informed my work as a writer ever since. Whenever I try and write slowly, I fail. If I spend longer than a month or so on a single book – in terms of writing the draft – it all falls apart; I begin to second-guess myself, and that's fatal. Now this applies from when I actually start work on the book itself, not the preparation time. Sometimes I'll spend months or years thinking and making notes about a project, perhaps even take a punt at writing it before realizing that it isn't quite ready yet.

That's the key. Any project can be divided into three – and it's very much like a movie, really. Pre-production is usually by far the longest phase, and really has no defined structure for me. I'll have the 'one idea' that kicks things off, then, along with several other projects, do a bit of reading, do a bit of thinking, jot down the occasional series of notes, working at a fairly slow pace at this stage. Then comes the next phase – which is actually writing the book. I've been attempting to maintain a pace of one book released every month for the last few years, and I've come surprisingly close to accomplishing it; my current average is a little over nine a year, up to about one every forty days at present. Though I'm always working to accelerate my output – twenty-eight days remains the ultimate goal, thirteen books a year. (I won't make it – quite – in 2017, but I hope to manage it in 2018.)

In any case, the production phase begins when I decide that it is time to, well, write a book. In my hat as a Science-Fiction writer, I currently have two series in progress, and I like to alternate between the two. It keeps me flexible, and it's usually a good idea to keep releases a reasonable space apart to avoid reader- and writer burnout. Moving to another genre has been high on my list for a while – and I'm very excited to be making the leap with Dragon of Outremer. Donning my 'business hat' for a moment, I almost always work in series, rather than writing stand-alone books; readers like to see the continuing adventures of characters they come to know, and it also allows you to re-use a lot of the 'grunt' work for new books – background notes, characters and so on. Aside from the fun of working in character and story arcs from one book to the next, which is always interesting.

Normally, I'll have a lot of potential plot lines churning around when I work on a novel, and it's often a struggle to choose one of them to work with. Often, I'll end up smashing two or even three of them together to make a richer storyline – it's all about adding the texture to a plot. (How do you write a good book? Easy. You just need a good plot, good characters, good setting. Those, you ask? Well, that's the hard part.) Once I've done that, well, it's head-down and drive through it. The thinking time come before I sit down to write – after that, it's a question of getting it onto the page. I usually aim for ten to twelve days to complete the draft; though I've managed it in eight in the past. (Little secret – a lot of authors will work the same way, no matter what they say, especially if it is their living. That was true in the 1930s when legends such as Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler were working – or Harold Lamb, for that matter – and it's just as true today.)

After that, editing – post-production. While technically a part of this, I'll usually have the cover commissioned before I start the draft, or once I'm certain that it is 'sticking'. The bulk of the post-production work involves me going over the work a few times, making corrections and changing anything from a single word to a paragraph to a chapter. (The best piece of advice I ever had when I was starting out was to write your first draft as though it was your last – making changes and edits as you go. It saves a lot of time later on – my 'second draft' is always piecemeal, rather than a complete rewrite as a result. Oh, another piece – edit your first chapter right at the start. You always see it when you start work for the day, and if it's already polished, it makes you feel better.)

For the purposes of historical fiction, the pre-production phase will be considerably more involved, and structured, than has been the case with my other work. Not that research hasn't always been involved with the science-fiction, but in this genre, it's a darn sight more critical. Which means some sort of structure will be required to determine what I need to know. I already have the shape of the story in my head – which is the hard part – and I've already decided to use a period where many interesting events were happening in a general scale, without necessarily relying heavily on specific events for the plot. Will I do the Fall of Edessa? Probably, but not in the first book or two, certainly. For the present, I need a more general overview, with some specifics that I can't mention here because they would be pretty huge spoilers.

Essentially, the first step is the skeletal structure of the plot; that will tell me what I need to know. Locations, dates, historical characters, that sort of thing. Once I've put what will probably at this stage amount to a page or two of notes, I can start fleshing them out into something stronger, taking the next few weeks to adding material from my research – anything from the tastes and smells of a location, to specific dates and times, even notes of what is happening elsewhere – any material to provide me with additional data. The goal is to have a 'cheat sheet' of perhaps a page per chapter, something I can quickly glance at while writing, as well as more notes to consult. (The 'cheat sheet', I must say, can be a great ally of a writer. Often you don't want to spend an hour going through your notes, when you can usually sum up most of what you need on a single piece of paper.)

So – now, the fun begins...

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